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Rattlesnakes!

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I have been a bit remiss in continuing to tell the story of the trip Catherine and I took to the Okanagan Valley this spring. I apologize, and in recompense, offer one of the most exciting observations we made.

One of the species we had most hoped to see was the Pacific Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus. I was anticipating that being early in the spring, the snakes would still be close to their winter denning sites, perhaps engaged in mating. As it turned out, we were too late. The snakes had already left their den sites for more productive hunting grounds further down the valleys.

The Pacific Rattlesnake is BC’s only rattlesnake, and like many northerly populations of rattlesnakes, is a threatened species. The reasons for the rarity of these snakes is that they have been persecuted by humans, and their habitats are being threatened by development. Persecution of these snakes was particularly damaging as they rely on safe hibernation sites, free of freezing conditions, and must migrate to these sites en masse in the fall. This means that entire populations of the snakes may end up in just a few suitable caverns, where humans can find and destroy them. This is in fact what has happened, not just in BC, but all over North America wherever these denning sites occur. In BC, there was a bounty on the snakes, and some people made it their mission to destroy every snake they could, dynamiting and gassing the dens.

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Snakes and roads don’t mix: my unfortunate first encounter with a Pacific Rattlesnake. The snake was decapitated by a truck I was driving, Aug 22, 2008.

In addition, the seasonal migration also poses extreme risk as the snakes must often cross roads to get to where they are going. Needless to say, cars do not mix well with snakes, and death on the roads is undoubtedly a major threat to the species.  I know this all too well, as my first encounter with this species was a fatal one. Years ago, I was driving a truck doing fieldwork in the Similkameen, and hit a snake on the way to a campsite. I felt terrible about this, but by the time I saw the snake, it was too late.
Later that evening, I walked out on the road I had driven up, and saw 7 more freshly killed rattlesnakes! This was likely due to an active log hauling operation using the roadway, but really even a modest amount of vehicle traffic would kill snakes. The 8 I saw killed that day is a ridiculous amount of excess mortality for a long-lived and not very fecund animal, and it means that the population of these snakes is in decline.

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On the lookout for snakes, spiders and whatever else we could see.

Every time Catherine and I were in likely areas, we would look at potential den sites with eyes keen for the snakes, but to no avail. We had a bit of inside info on historic den site locations, and so we felt well-prepared. Alas, the snakes did not show up. It was not until late in our trip that we checked out a site near Vaseux Lake. Here again we did not find any rattlers, but we did find a snake-catcher’s equipment in one of the likely den sites: tall boots and a large bucket. This was likely from someone in animal control or perhaps a pest control business that had used these to transport rattlesnakes to the den from someone’s house or other building in the fall (sometimes the snakes will end up in these locations on the way to their dens). This was most encouraging!

We occupied ourselves taking pictures of spiders and insects in the grasslands near the bluffs, always with an eye out for snakes. In the same area where we found  the racer, I finally spotted one!

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This was quite a small snake, and when I saw it, it was fleeing our approach (I had thought they might just stay still, like Bothrops). Unlike most snakes which I am familiar with, this is a pitviper, adapted for camouflage and ambush predation, rather than quick flight. We wanted to get some photos, so I picked the snake up on my monopod and placed it in an open area. The little snake was obviously not too pleased with this, but only gave a halfhearted, barely audible rattle. In addition, at no time did the snake strike the stick. It was fairly easy to keep the snake in place just by moving the monopod in front of its head, and it soon just settled in a defensive coil. This made it very easy to photograph, although if I had a polarizing filter for the brilliant sunshine, the shots would have been better!
The ease I had handling these snakes is in stark contrast to just about every other snake I have met. They are relatively slow and cumbersome animals (though the strike is likely very quick).  I have no doubt any reasonably capable adult could move any “threatening” snake from their premises easily with a large bucket and a stick. Nonetheless, these snakes are still regularly (and legally) killed to “protect life and property”, which means that enforcement of their protected status is a nebulous concept.

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The snake was absolutely beautiful, with chocolate-brown patches on a cream background.

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This eye-level shot shows off the heat-sensitive pits (large holes on the front) which the snakes use to sense their warm-blooded prey. The vertically-slit pupils are a hallmark of predominantly-nocturnal snakes.

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Landscape with reptile: a wide and close shot to show the surroundings.

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This shot (like many of the previous shots) used a bit of fill flash in order to make the snake stand out.

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This is how the snake looks in the grass. Very obvious if moving, but if coiled under a plant, it would be hard to spot.

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After a short session (we did not want to stress the animal too much), I nudged it under a large rock, which would be a safe place for the animal to hide.

With these photos, it is obvious that the animal was manipulated into position for photography, and some might take issue with this from an ethical standpoint. I see where this comes from, and I agree somewhat. The snake obviously does not like being handled, and in point of fact, the majority of snakebite accidents probably happen as a result of handling. That being said, from the standpoint of this snake, what has occurred is that the snake was threatened, it could not escape, it stood its ground, and the dangerous animal (me) went away. In the life of one of these snakes, with hawks, cattle, dogs and cars to contend with, this is really small potatoes.

Anyway, it wasn’t long before we found a second, slightly larger rattler. This one was also fleeing, and in fact did not need capturing, as it took shelter under my backpack, getting caught around the straps in the process. Getting it into position for photography was just a matter of moving the pack to an open area and coaxing the snake out.

snake in a pack! Photo by Catherine Scott.

snake in a pack! Photo by Catherine Scott.

 

removing the reptile.

removing the reptile. Photo by Catherine Scott.

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The sun was definitely more harsh in this shot, and a polarizing filter would have come in handy! You can tell that this larger rattler has molted more times than the other, as its rattle has more segments.

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With this snake, I tried the 300 mm. It compresses the perspective, makes the colours pop a bit, and overall emphasizes the snake.

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Again, a wide and close shot to put the snake in the landscape. This accomplishes the opposite of using a telephoto, but can also produce a pleasing composition.

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After a short photo session, the snake just disappeared into the next rocky overhang. And that was the end of our rattlesnake adventure!

 

Barn Owls and Red-tailed Hawks

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A barn owl in the hand.

 

Was out with Sofi last night, to do Barn Owl nest checks (and some bleeding for rodenticide testing). The Barn Owls were in various stages of development, with only the first nest having owls of sufficient size for bloodwork.

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There was a Red-tailed Hawk nest nearby, where the parents only got anxious if we actually looked at them (they were fine if we did not pay attention to them).

 

 

 

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A gorgeous hawk in the evening light.

 

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Some little Barn owlets, in their brand-new nest box!

Further coyote pup shots!

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Today at work, the coyotes were not evident…For a while! I heard excited yipping from the trees, and went to see what I imagined was a food delivery. It was, but the pups were sent away, and all I saw was the adult staring at me balefully. When it saw that I had seen it, it barked and growled. I went back to my ant nest, knowing that I had overstepped my bounds.

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Mama or daddy isn’t too happy!

Anyway, when I was packing up to go, I noticed that the tan pup was out. This time I had the 300! I managed to get some shots of it sleeping, and yawning. Evidently the yipping from before was excitement over a meal, as the little tan guy (I think I will call him Tanguy) had a fat belly.

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Getting ready to relax.

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Yawing is also important.

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This little guy will get much bigger, judging by his legs and paws!

 

 

Long live the king!

IMG_4302Once we had gone up the Rewa as far as we were able, we camped for several days at an old fishing camp. Although this was what most would describe as a “pristine wilderness” the evidence of previous habitation was all around. From Amerindian petroglyphs, mine leavings, tapped rubber trees, the evidence of a longer history continues to subtly mark the land. We had several abundant fishing sites for catching aimara close by, and Rambo and Brian set up a surprise for us during a fishing trip. They had hung a few aimara up in a shady nook, letting them slowly rot to attract vultures. The object of this was to bring down the king vulture, Sarcorhamphus papa.

 

These new World vultures are members of the family Cathartidae, which also includes the condors, the Black-headed Vulture and the familiar Turkey Vulture. The kings share their habitat both of black vultures, as well as Greater and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures. The king is much larger than any but the condors, and is a dominant bird at carrion. It is often thought to be parasitic, having no sense of smell of its own and just using the other species to lead it to food, but this is not entirely clear. What is clear to all though is that at a carcass, the king is king!

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The aimara, stinking!

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We paddled up silently, but still the king was wary.

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The king was not super frightened of us, but it had mostly finished its meal.

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As we examined the trees above, there was a prince or a princess watching!

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The king flew up to join the youngster.

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Royal family portrait!

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The coloration of the adult king vulture is spectacular, but they are sexually monomorphic. I think these animals are mutually sexually selected.

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This baby king is really adorable. I had never considered that the plumage would be black. 

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The kings were joined by some Greater Yellow-headed Vultures, which were also impressive birds.

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They perched in the same shady tree not far from the carcasses.

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All of the vultures were somewhat put off by our presence, and were probably wondering when we would leave.

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We stayed for some photos, and then made our way back to camp.

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On a sandbank across the river, a couple more were taking baths and basking.

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And in a couple of my favourite shots, this one took a drink.

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What caught my eye was that the bird sought out a shallow section to drink, much as we did to avoid becoming prey to an unseen caiman!




































Caracara interlude #2: scavenger hunt!

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On our 12th day on the Rewa River, I had to part ways with Jonathan, Rambo, Josey and Brian. We headed downriver to where I could meet up with a group of Americans (up to study the Arapaima) who would take me back to Rewa Village. When we met up, we found them sitting at the riverside, having just finished a lunch of piranha. We arranged to meet the next day below the falls, and then bid adieu and went to set up camp. Because there was a pile of fish guts going begging, I placed the pile where a nearby Black Caracara could find it.

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The caracara came in quickly, but just as quickly a much larger Black Vulture came in to drive the little caracara away.

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The caracara, after watching the vulture devour the guts, grabs a stray morsel the vulture has left.

Here the caracara  is considering trying for another.

Here the caracara is considering trying for another.

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Uh oh! The vulture takes exception to this!

Uh oh! The vulture takes exception.

Look at the sand fly as the caracara flees with its modest prize!

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Speed and agility win the day.

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The caracara strikes again during a momentary lapse in the vulture’s attention.

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Again, the caracara flees on foot.

This time the vulture is not as aggressive in chasing down the quicker caracara

This time the vulture is not as aggressive in chasing down the quicker caracara

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To reward the plucky bird, I chase the vulture off.

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Black Caracara in moment of glory!

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Yum! Sandy fish guts!

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Oh no! The vulture returns.

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The caracara concedes the fish guts.

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Then looks to me to see if I will intervene again.

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Because help doesn’t seem to be coming, the caracara proceeds to take a few sand baths.

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First the bird scratches the sand…

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And then a nice lie-down.

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Watching this caracara in action was truly entertaining, and a highlight of the trip for me. These birds seem very intelligent, associating humans with food, and being attentive to opportunity. It baffles me that no one has made a concerted study of their biology and behaviour yet. I can’t wait to get back to visit them again sometime!




A couple of Okanagan snakes

IMG_1002While Catherine and I were exploring the area around Vaseux Lake, We managed to see a couple of snakes I had not yet encountered in BC.

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The first species was the yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor mormon), a subspecies of the common racer. Like other racers I have seen, these were super fast snakes!

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This was as good as I could manage for an environmental portrait, as the snake could not be convinced to pose.

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Large eyes, fast snake!

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Like many other Okanagan fauna, the racer is considered vulnerable in BC. Because of rampant development in this area of BC, the status of these beautiful snakes is uncertain.

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The second species we found was a beautiful (and BIG) bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer). This awesome constrictor was (long ago) considered a subspecies of the pine snake, and is a species I have always wanted to encounter. We had seen one dead on the road before, so seeing this amazing snake alive was certainly a highlight.

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When I pointed out the snake to this guy, he dived right in to catch the snake. I wish I had caught his name, but he was a real Okanagan outdoor lover who had a great fondness for the local herpetofaina. He was also immune to poison ivy, which is why he was able to navigate the ivy filled swamp to fetch the snake.

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I managed to get this picture of the snake on a branch, but not much else. This was by far the largest snake of any kind I had ever encountered in Canada. Handling it was not intimidating, although it did musk us a bit. Interestingly, the musk of this snake was not super-offensive like that of a garter snake.

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After we let it go, the snake had the last laugh…While the fellow who caught him was immune to poison ivy, I certainly was not, and got a bad case from having handled the ivy oil-laden serpent!

 

Guyana Riverside Birds

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A juvenile Great Black Hawk, Buteogallus urubutinga. These large buteos are probably the most visible raptor along the rivers, although they are often quiet. In French Guiana, they are called “Buse Urubu”, or “vulture hawk”.

Travelling by boat offers many advantages over walking, not only in saved energy and efficiency, but also in that approaching wildlife is often much easier. I have covered many of the fish-eaters we saw along the riverside before, but here are some other species that we saw quite often along the Rewa.

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Here the Great Black Hawk appears in adult garb. The long bare legs are well-suited to their habit of foarging on the muddy shoreline. They prey on frogs, lizards and snakes, as well as fish occasionally. I actually did a camera trap study a few years back at a great Black Hawk nest, but the data are pretty sparse due to death of the nestling after a few days.

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Another Great Black Hawk juvenile looks ready for action, but probably isn’t. Mostly they sit and call for food from their parents!

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A Muscovy Duck in flight. These treehole-nesting ducks are the progenitors of the domestic strain, and are large and impressive birds. They seemed to travel long distances along the river, and spend the night on quiet ponds and branches of the river. None allowed close approach.

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Red and Green Macaws (Ara chloroptera) nuzzling on a tree. These macaws, along with two other species, were loud and obvious along the river. They also travel large distances, and sometimes engage in playful mock combat on high branches.

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The Blue and Yellow Macaw (Ara ararauna) was also quite abundant. They are a bit larger and deeper-voiced, but sometimes seem social with the other species.

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The Swallow-tailed Kite is an amazingly beautiful raptor, which also occurs in Florida. Guyana has both migrants and resident birds.

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Black Skimmers, also quite cosmopolitan, breed along the river. We often saw them in company with Large-billed Terns.

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The Large-billed Tern (Phaetusa simplex) could be found nesting on sandbars. Sometimes they would dive-bomb our boat.

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Three species of swallow were super abundant. We saw White-winged Swallows and White-banded Swallows most commonly, but also Barn Swallows high up on the Rewa.

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Dead wood in the river was the favorite perch of most of the swallows. In the evenings, swallows would be replaced by bats and swifts, and sometimes all three taxa would fly together. .

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We also saw a lot of nightjars perched on the river, in their usual cryptic fashion.

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Here is a Blackish Nightjar, recently disturbed from her nest.

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And here is her offspring! Can you see it?

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A closer view.

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A Green Ibis. These ibises were always a bit disturbed at our approach, and would scramble noisily into the forest.

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Rambo checks out some tanagers high in a tree. We didn’t often see smaller species along the river, and in fact I found sedentary camp life in French Guiana was better for seeing these types of birds. What an awesome job it must be to guide people upriver in such an awesome place. If I had the means to do so, I think this is something I might like to do one day.

Some late spring shots in Victoria

IMG_3652In Victoria last weekend, we were not only attending the Ride for Lyme kickoff, we also spent a lot of time outdoors looking for interesting animals. This is the time of year when the camas is in bloom, the snakeflies are out, and all kinds of marvelous creatures abound.

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In Beacon Hill Park, dance flies (Empididae) abounded, some of them mating. Here a female snacks on a nuptial gift of a crane fly while the male copulates.

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A penultimate Tibellus oblongus waits on the grasses for prey.

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A gorgeous carabid of the genus Scaphinotus on a log at Island View Beach.

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Not much was sleeping on the dead vegetation, but I did find a number of these bee flies (Conophorus spp.)

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At first, I thought this small butterfly was just a pierid, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a Nymphalid. Erik Runquist on Twitter IDed it as Coenonympha california insulana, our version of the Common Ringlet. EDIT: it turns out this is not so common as the name would suggest. This species is endangered in BC, and is considered Red-listed in the province. 

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A worker of Formica obscuripes succumbs to a crab spider

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Some of the black widows had modest egg sacs on the go.

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At Ogden Point, a male house sparrow tries to distract me from something.

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Fledglings! Pretty cute little buggers.

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The camas was in bloom, although we were probably a couple weeks late for the full glory.

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We made a special trip up to Mt. Tolmie to find some of the snakeflies, but managed just to find this gorgeous female.

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Camas in the evening shadow is quite spectacular.

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A gorgeous syrphid (Eristalis flavipes) is quite a convincing bumblebee mimic until it lands.

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Quite a dark garter snake…

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At Cattle Point, an eagle looks out for an easy meal.

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And an otter has found one, in the form of some salmon discards from a fishing boat.



 

Wine takes fertilizer

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The Okanagan is famous for its wine, and vineyards are raking it in and popping up like mushrooms on the floors of the valleys (this is actually one of the major development pressures threatening the scarce habitats). We found an unusual nitrogen subsidy taking place when we ended up on Road 22 outside Osoyoos. I will let the pictures do the talking.

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Here he is, an osprey in a vineyard…

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Hmmm. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that carp yesterday…

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Hmmm. Something is about to happen…

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Yep! There it is!

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What? What you lookin’ at?

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Weirdo.

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Heck with this, I’m going fishing.

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Ain’t I majestic?

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On a mission….yeah…

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There were three osprey nests in very close proximity.

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This one was closest to the road and was just being started.

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In the nearby Osoyoos Oxbows, the osprey found abundant fish.

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This area is an osprey-watcher’s dream.

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I worry a bit though that not all of the power lines are fitted with shock-proofing insulators.

Ride for Lyme!

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These aren’t the ticks you’re looking for…These are Dermacentor andersoni, the Rocky Mountain wood tick. They do not transmit Borellia, but nonetheless are a spectacularly ornamented hard tick. Male is in the centre, flanked by two females.

 

This weekend, Catherine and I went out to Victoria to spend Mothers Day with my mom, who years ago suffered a debilitating illness caused by a spirochaete, Borrelia burgdoferi.  This spirochaete, as far as we know, is transmitted in an enzootic cycle between ticks and various small mammals, reptiles and birds. When it spills over into the human population, it can cause symptoms ranging from mild rash and arthritis to fatal swelling of the brain and other organs, with just about everything in between represented. It is the most common arthropod-borne illness in North America, with hundreds of thousands of infections annually.

Primarily this disease is transmitted by black-legged ticks (Ixodes ricinus), but Ixodes pacificus, the Pacific black-legged tick is also a competent vector. While the main hotspots for Lyme transmission in Canada is southern Ontario and Quebec, there is growing evidence that locally acquired infections in BC may be becoming more common.

Nonetheless, the disease is often misdiagnosed, unrecognized, or otherwise not regarded as serious by a large proportion of the medical establishment, who are convinced that a quick round of antibiotics will kill the parasite. This is often true, but it seems that it is not always the case. Some of the most severe manifestations of Lyme disease go on to be persistent, leading to progressive debilitating symptoms. This chronic form of Lyme is the most controversial, as the leading treatment orthodoxy does not recognize the existence of long-term infection.

The existing diagnostic criteria are often insufficient, for while they pick up the so-called classic Lyme symptoms very well, an unknown percentage of sufferers never experience the characteristic bulleseye rash (erethema migrans) or early arthritic symptoms. Molecular techniques used for diagnosis are designed only for those sufferers presenting with classic Lyme symptoms, and even at this they have very poor performance. So the situation in Canada is there is transmission of a debilitating parasite, which can be difficult to diagnose and treat, and medical and disease-control officials are unwilling to acknowlege the extent and nature of the problem.

Anyway, something is being done to address this illness, both from a public information perspective as well as from a fundraising one.

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Two young fellows from St. Catharines, Ontario are undertaking a cross-Canada bicycle ride to raise money for and awareness of the disease. Daniel Corso and Tanner Cookson have a friend named Adelaine who was recently affected by Lyme disease, and realized what a tough and enduring problem the disease would be in her life. Discovering that the treatment options and diagnostic situation in Canada need to be updated, the two decided that their love of athletics may offer some kind of solution in the form of an endurance fundraiser. If nothing else, their ride might help raise Adelaine’s spirits.

On Sunday, they began their effort with a rally at Victoria’s Centennial Square, where they announced the ride and introduced their support team (their dads!). Since it was Mothers Day, they also made a special effort to acknowledge the mothers affected by the disease (like mine).

For more information on Lyme borelliosis in Canada, visit the CanLyme website, and to follow along with Tanner and Daniel’s ride, check out rideforlyme.ca.

This is a really important health issue in Canada, and this is a great way to raise awareness and funds for research. If you happen to be on their route, be sure to go and cheer them on!

Below are some pictures from the Victoria events.

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